Fake Emergency Alerts Spark Danger and Panic

False emergency alerts can make people vacate homes or ignore genuine alarms: Internet Scambusters #885

Emergency alerts by phone or text are supposed to warn us of impending troubles or even disasters.

But it’s easy to fake these alerts to make people behave in a particular way, like vacating their homes or running from wherever they happen to be.

The motives for spoofing these alarms may vary, but the result could spell a different kind of disaster, as we report in this week’s issue.

Let’s get started…


Fake Emergency Alerts Spark Danger and Panic


What kind of emergency would make you run out of your home, perhaps without giving much thought to what you’re leaving behind, maybe not even locking the door?

How about a public alert warning of an impending disaster like a flood, tornado or earthquake?

If you felt worried enough for your own safety and that of your family, you’d maybe act before giving it a second thought. Like: Was that alert genuine?

You may think a fake alert seems a little far-fetched, but it isn’t.

Scammers are playing the panic card by phoning people and telling them there’s some kind of extreme weather or a quake due to strike at any moment and urging them to evacuate their homes.

They watch for their victims to leave home and then burglarize it.

For example, in Orange County, California, scammers have been phoning scores of people saying that an 8.4 quake was expected to strike imminently. An 8.4 is a doozy, enough to drive most residents out of their homes.

Of course, if you thought about it, scientists are not able to predict earthquakes, certainly not with sufficient timing to be able to fit in a phone call before it hits.

But there are other phenomena that could be more convincing — for example, if you lived in the vicinity of a forest fire or in an area susceptible to tsunamis.

Fake Texts

A similar response has been shown to follow fake emergency text alerts.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recently discovered a vulnerability in LTE cell phone networks — the wireless ones we all use — that enabled them to send spoofed emergency alert texts.

They showed how they could send a fake AMBER Alert to 50,000 people in a football stadium.

Obviously, a crook who tried this trick would not be intent on burglarizing, but more for creating panic or a terrorist attack.

Tech and lifestyle website mic.com, which reported the fake alert simulation a few weeks ago, commented: “It’s not hard to imagine how quickly a situation could go very badly if this type of attack was carried out.

“The researchers even laid out a situation in which it could happen: malicious actors set up a fake cell tower outside a stadium or other heavily trafficked area, connect to as many phones as possible and push a panic-inducing message to as many phones as they can.”

Evidence of how people react in these situations can be seen in what happened last year when residents of Hawaii received an erroneous message warning of an inbound missile threat.

To make things worse, the message contained the words “This is not a drill,” as a result of which many people went into a blind panic.

Disruption and Risk

One effect of this type of fake emergency alert is to disrupt a whole range of services and businesses, accompanied by a high risk of injury or death.

Also, this past August, several TV networks were fined by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for using simulated wireless alert tones.

Even though the incidents — there were at least three on different channels — didn’t cause panic, the FCC is worried that people will become used to the tones, so they won’t know when they’re genuine. It’s a sort of telephonic version of crying wolf.

Just to make things worse, program developers have created an app for Android phones that is capable of generating emergency alerts on individual devices.

The developers even say it’s “ideal for drills, pranks, and role play.” Pranks?

The problem all of these fake emergency alerts are creating is the potential for confusion and the risk of falling victim, whether it’s to a burglary or a human panic stampede.

Unfortunately, there may not be a lot we consumers can do to defeat these tricksters, whether they’re scamming or exercising their own distorted idea of fun.

But they do underline the importance of at least pausing in an alert and avoiding panic.

In the Hawaii incident, many residents did try to verify the alleged incident, but even that may not always be a wise move.

As the researchers at Colorado say: “We think this is something the public should be aware of to encourage cell carriers and standards bodies to correct this problem.

“In the meantime, people should probably still trust the emergency alerts they see on their phones.”

Alert of the Week

Have you thought of joining “Lowes Club”? Here’s the thing: It doesn’t exist.

But lots of people were lured into visiting a page supposedly set up on Facebook by the hardware store chain.

For a start, “Lowes” has an apostrophe — “Lowe’s” — which the supposed club didn’t.

And if you’d clicked on Facebook’s fairly new “Page Transparency” button on the page, you’d have discovered the page was only just established and there was no indication of who “owned” the page. In other words, highly suspect.

It’s a good example of the value of using the page transparency feature on Facebook. There’s often enough info there to raise your suspicions.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!